As Ron Ben-Israel’s star was rising – and his towering confections gained more and more fame – some suggested he opt for a less ethnic-sounding name.
“I’m very much Israeli and American; I never was tempted to change my name,” the famed cake designer told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “Some people suggested I should have a different name, and I said absolutely not. That’s the name I inherited and it’s meaningful: Israel is on every cake that I present. My background is inseparable from my work.”
Indeed, Ben-Israel’s name is just about everywhere these days – from the pages of magazines to the TV screen – as the cake designer and baker continues his rocket to fame from his humble roots.
His downtown Manhattan studio, Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, is one of the most in-demand spots for designer wedding cakes, and he is a familiar face on television as well. Ben-Israel was the star of the Food Network show Sweet Genius for three seasons, as well as a guest on Cake Wars for three seasons.
“Now I’m looking for the next TV project,” he said.
Ben-Israel said he was offered a spot as a judge on the recent Bake-Off Israel, “but the problem was the shooting period was six weeks,” too long for him to leave his bakery behind. Nevertheless, he said, “I would be happy to do another TV show in Israel.”
Ben-Israel may today be one of the best-known names in wedding cakes, but he started out his career as a dancer. After finishing his IDF service, he started touring internationally, dancing for close to 15 years with the Batsheva and Bat-Dor companies. But when the nomadic lifestyle – and his knees – got old, he hung up his dance shoes to embrace his other love: baking.
“I grew up going to bakeries in Tel Aviv; that’s where we got our birthday cakes, they were always European baking and butter creams,” he reminisces. “We have such good baking in Israel, and we have the Diaspora of Jews from all over, and we learned early on to adapt and absorb flavors from all over.”
So when he got to America, Ben-Israel said he was perturbed by a lot of the cakes he encountered.
“The cakes were always made with vegetable shortening and powdered sugar, and I could not enjoy them,” he said. Instead, he set out to learn from his travels in Europe and Canada to change the approach to cakes.
“In Israel for years we incorporated passion fruit, halva, we always had amazing chocolate because the factories like Elite studied in Switzerland... I started incorporating those flavors, and I think my reputation in the beginning was that the cakes would actually taste good, and everybody was surprised.”
Indeed, in the wedding-cake industry, taste is often an afterthought, with the focus on appearance. But even there, Ben-Israel was ready to apply his own style.
“I couldn’t understand why people would have plastic columns between the cakes and plastic figurines on the cakes,” he exclaimed. Instead he used flowers and took inspiration from the architecture of New York, shaking up what he called a dormant industry.
“I find that my Israeli background actually helps me to break some boundaries,” he said, “because we don’t have such long traditions. We took traditions from Europe, from the Middle East, and we were encouraged to explore and adapt things. When you work in a tradition of hundreds of years, it’s very hard to break from it, and even open your mind to other possibilities. But the moment somebody does, there’s a chance to succeed and create something.”
And it wasn’t long before Ben-Israel’s unique style caught the attention of a very influential name: Martha Stewart.
Ben-Israel started baking in 1993, and shortly afterward, Stewart spotted one of his cakes in a jewelry-store window on Fifth Avenue. One thing led to another, and Ben-Israel, then just a fledgling baker, ended up creating a cake design for the very first issue of Martha Stewart Living Weddings in 1995.
In 1999, he launched his own business, Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, which today is a bustling business employing eight full-time workers and three rotating interns yearround.
In 2003, The New York Times called him “the Manolo Blahnik of wedding cakes.”
Despite his success, Ben-Israel is still very hands-on in the business, pausing our phone call to explain orders, how cakes are packed up and to give instructions to his staff. He still likes to think of himself as a simple baker.
“If people say ‘you’re an artist,’ great, I say thank-you very much,” he said. “But I don’t call myself an artist. I like the word baker, or cake designer.”
But a few years back, Ben-Israel had to get used to another title: Sweet Genius. From 2011 to 2013 he helmed that show on the Food Network, where four pastry chefs competed against each other for three rounds until one was crowned by Ben-Israel as a sweet genius. After that ended, Ben-Israel became a judge on Cake Wars, also on the Food Network, as well as showing up in guest spots in a variety of other shows, becoming a household name in the foodie world.
“I love TV series... but [these days] it’s always reality TV,” he said. “When I started doing TV it was always instructional, like with Martha Stewart. We actually showed people how to make delicious stuff.”
These days, he said, “what they want is the drama. I’m not opposed to drama, but I wish there was a way to do something to enrich people’s knowledge.”
Ben-Israel has found a different outlet to do that, teaching courses at the International Culinary Center in New York, as well as workshops at his studio and at locations around the globe.
But between all his jet-setting, the one thing he’s always itching to get back to is the bakery.
“It’s something that I’m not willing to give up,” he said. “I could have done TV full-time but then I wouldn’t be able to be involved with my business. I’m still enamored with what can be discovered... making cakes has always been so meditative for me. The process – there’s something about it that’s a continuous discovery, the exploration, physically doing it again and again – that’s my meditation.”
It is that repetitive task and attention to detail that Ben-Israel credits to his days in the IDF.
“My time [being in the army] prepared me to deal with trials, deal with institutions and to develop a kind of patience,” he said.
“With the army it was almost ‘are you going to give up or are you going to keep moving?’ There’s also a repetitiveness – doing it again and again; I like that. The more you practice the better you become.”
Today, Ben-Israel goes back to Israel about once a year, and “I do my best part to represent it by being myself.” He recalled when he first started being active on Facebook and Instagram, “I would get hate messages” from anti-Israel commenters, he said.
“When I started on TV, people said things like ‘go back to where you started, Zionist.’ They also commented on me being openly gay – I wear all my labels very comfortably, I don’t shove it down your throat but it’s who I am.”
Ben-Israel said today when he gets a negative comment online, he’ll just leave it there and let other commenters attack the hateful person.
“I tell people to go and visit – especially Americans. They love to come to Israel,” he said. “I have myself brought people on different occasions. I just tell them to keep an open mind and they are so impressed and have such a good time because they realize who we are as a people and what we’ve done with it.”
Ben-Israel said he never imagined just how his life would end up – from a successful business to a TV career and traveling the globe teaching classes.
“I wouldn’t change anything the way things turned out,” he said. “I embrace it.”